British cybersecurity startup goes from hiring former spies to students as it looks to grow to the size of Autonomy
The three-year-old Cambridge firm confirmed to Business Insider that it has been in talks with investors at Google Ventures, adding that they are interested in Darktrace's technology - an appliance that helps firms detect unusual behaviour on their network.
Dave Palmer, director of technology at Darktrace and a former spy, told Business Insider during an interview at the company's London office on Pall Mall that Darktrace is now scouting students from universities across the UK as it looks to sell its technology in an increasing number of markets.Darktrace, which is now valued at more than $100 million (£65 million) after raising two funding rounds in quick succession earlier this year, openly admits that it employs a number of staff that used to work for government intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, including MI5, MI6, CCHQ, the CIA, and the FBI. For example, Nick Trim, Darktrace's managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has worked for at least one UK intelligence agency, as has John Richardson, the company's director for operations and security. The names of the agencies can't be revealed for national security reasons.
"If you're technical in the agencies, you tend to be very hands on," said Palmer. "You tend to be doing it at a massive scale. They're also very interested in staff development so you do a lot of training and coaching."
But as Darktrace aims to grow into the security beast that Lynch undoubtedly wants it to become, the company must look for alternative sources of talent with skills applicable to areas like marketing and HR. Cambridge criminology graduate Kadri Siff, for example, joined the company in September as a marketing executive. She sat in on the interview with Business Insider to make sure Palmer didn't say anything wrong.
Hiring graduates beyond Cambridge
"You can't scale a business by trying to hire these people [that worked for government intelligence agencies]," said Palmer, who spent 13 years helping MI5 and GCHQ to build and maintain their global networks.
"The main criteria we're interested in is curious and inquisitive minds. We genuinely believe we can teach tech and what cyber attacks look like and all of that stuff. If they've got an awareness, then that's brilliant."
Darktrace has a reputation for hiring graduates directly out of Cambridge University, but Palmer said: "Despite our heavy association with Cambridge, they're not all just from there. Most of them are from all parts of Europe."
Last August, GCHQ gave its stamp of approval to six UK university courses that it recognises as breeding grounds for cybersecurity experts, but Palmer said hiring gradates from these courses isn't easy.
"The universities that have been approved by GCHQ produce graduates that can command immediately large salaries in the banking work," he said. "We're a young company and we can't compete on salary and we won't."
Palmer said there is no shortage of Darktrace job applicants but it isn't always easy to find the right people.
The company's technology, which can spot unusual email activity and suspicious file uploads, is underpinned by some complex maths that was developed at Cambridge University.
No Google, you can't buy Darktrace
Many of the UK's best technology companies get bought out by Silicon Valley giants before they can reach their full potential independently. The founders of such companies will often see an exit as a quick win and who can blame them when some of these deals, such as Google's $400 million acquisition of DeepMind, are worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
But Darktrace is determined not to be snapped up as it looks to follow through on its global ambitions.
"While we're successful enough that investors are pretty interested in putting more money in, we're not interested in being bought out and disappearing and just becoming a bit of Google or Microsoft or whatever," said Palmer.
"Getting knocked off the board because you get 'acquihired' by someone famous and great is really counter to what we want. If we got bought out by, say, one of the network switch vendors, you just know that Darktrace would only work on their stuff in six weeks time. We want Darktrace to be as widely applicable as possible."
Darktrace has expanded its operations to 18 countries around the world and investors are desperate to take a stake in the company, according to Vanessa Colomar, a partner at Invoke Capital. Lynch set up the fund after he sold Autonomy to HP for $11.7 billion (£8.4 billion) in 2011.
Colomar confirmed to Business Insider that Darktrace has met with Google Ventures, as well as "the rest of the leading venture capital firms in the US."
But Darktrace, which is yet to reveal its revenues, doesn't need the money at this stage, according to Colomar. The main reason for raising the $22.5 million (£14.7 million) Series B round from Summit Ventures was to open doors to the US market, she added.